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Think Wikipedia Is Sexist? They Want To Pay You To Help Change That

A new campaign seeks ideas to correct Wikipedia’s massive gender gap.

Think Wikipedia Is Sexist? They Want To Pay You To Help Change That
[Photo: Flickr user Russ Nelson]

Wikipedia knows it has a gender problem. Every time you see a new study, news headline, or snarky blog comment calling out Wikipedia’s male-heavy demographic breakdown, you should know that the Wikimedia Foundation is aware of the issue and is trying to figure out ways to fix it. Now they’re asking users for help.

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The Inspire Campaign is a new initiative by the Wikimedia Foundation designed to diversify its army of editors and make its quest to document “the sum of all human knowledge” less of a white-dude sausage party. The non-profit has allocated $250,000 in grant money, which will be awarded to those who submit the best ideas for improving diversity on Wikipedia.

“The solutions themselves need to be diverse,” says Siko Bouterse, director of community resources at the Wikimedia Foundation. “The challenge of getting more women to contribute in Bangalore is very different from the challenge of getting more women to contribute in Harlem, which is different from the challenge of getting more women to contribute in a village in Thailand. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.”

A United Nations University study from 2010 found that only 13% of Wikipedia’s editors are female, while other surveys have yielded an even lower number. Whatever the exact stats may be–this isn’t an easy thing to measure, since Wikipedians don’t self-report gender upon signing up–suffice it to say that the vast majority of Wikipedia editors are men. This appears to have an impact on the site’s content. Last month, European researchers used computational linguistics to uncover an anti-female bias in the language used across Wikipedia.

Since Wikipedia is an encyclopedia covering millions of topics, the controversy around its editor demographics has a way of intertwining itself with larger gender-related controversies. Most recently, edit wars have erupted on the Wikipedia entries for Gamergate–which led to a controversial decision to ban some editors–and Chelsea Manning, the transgendered WikiLeaks whistleblower formerly known as Bradley (a fact now acknowledged by her once uncertain Wikipedia article).

More broadly, Wikipedia’s demographic breakdown makes it harder to achieve the objective record of human knowledge that the site so ambitiously declares as its goal. African-American history, for example, is underrepresented on the site, as are details about many other parts of the world.

There have been a number of efforts to address these biases, often in the form of brief spurts of editing called edit-a-thons. Some focus on things like beefing up coverage of female scientists, while others aim to correct the dearth of information about black history.

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While the Wikimedia Foundation welcomes these spikes in participation, it acknowledges that they’re not going to be enough to tip the balance. “More women editing does not necessarily mean more content about women on Wikipedia,” says Bouterse. “It’s much more complex than that.”

Through the Inspire Campaign, the organization aims to reel in 500 new participants and as many as 100 ideas for diversifying Wikipedia in the long run. Until March 31, 2015, anyone can submit ideas through the Inspire Campaign wiki and the best ones–as determined by a panel of Wikimedia volunteers–will be given a slice of the $250,000 that the foundation has set aside for this initiative.

One of the ongoing challenges of fixing Wikipedia’s gender gap is going to be measuring progress, which can be very nuanced. The Wikimedia Foundation is looking at new ways to track the progress of these initiatives but warns that nobody should expect things to change overnight.

“Culture change takes time,” says Bouterse. “These stats about demographics aren’t the only way to measure the problem or progress against it. I do think that we need to develop more creative ways of looking at community building and community health as we go forward.”

About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.

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